I was fortunate enough to grow up with my mother around, and I know I should be grateful for that. But the reality is that she was never really with me enough for me to know who she really is. And I doubt I ever will.
My mother is an alcoholic. Her behaviour meant that I spent most of my childhood in a state of deep distress, but it also means that now, in my late twenties, I’m still dealing with the aftermath. I have insecurities, an inferiority complex, issues with trust and a constant feeling of inadequacy – I blame myself for not being good enough for her to stop drinking.
It’s easy to rationalise from an outsider’s perspective – to know it is a disease, to know that the alcoholic doesn’t mean to hurt anybody, to be patient in the knowledge that the disease is bigger than them. But as a child – as their child – all you feel is disappointment and pain. They tell you they’re going to stop drinking and you believe them, and then they fall of the wagon and drink. This happens over and over again until you cannot believe a word they say any more. And once you lose trust in a parent, it feels virtually impossible to trust anyone else ever again.
It started when I was in primary school. Every evening I would get home and see my mother sitting on top of the washing machine with a bottle of wine next to her, a full glass in her right hand and the house phone in her left, nattering away to her mates until the bottle was finished. I remember going through her handbag – not cool, I know – looking for sweets. But I found something else: a vodka bottle. I put it back and didn’t think much of it, because I was seven years old. But I knew something was wrong.
My mother was always distant. She’d walk out of the room halfway through my sentences, her mind somewhere too far away to even pretend to listen to me. I was never taught how to ride a bike, I never played a board game like Monopoly, I was never taught my mother tongue; I had to nag my parents to teach me how to tie shoelaces. They were wrapped up in their own stuff: work, money troubles, keeping their marriage together. My father was too busy trying to help my mother overcome her alcoholism to notice that I was a child falling to pieces.
As I joined secondary school, my mother’s condition worsened. I only really understood she had a condition when my parents’ marriage fell apart and my father left home and my sister, who was years older than me, did the same. I felt abandoned, but I didn’t blame her – she was fed up of the drama, the arguments, the distress it caused us all.
So there I was, left alone with the woman I saw in my nightmares: eyes glazed over, hair frizzy and matted with traces of food and vomit, swaying around the house, sometimes shouting, occasionally crying, otherwise sleeping or bringing strange men to the house. I stopped sleeping. I stopped going to school because I saw no reason for it. I saw no future for myself.
Alcoholism is a family illness. It is not just the drinker who suffers, but the whole family
I’m not the only person to experience this. I spoke to people from all corners of the world, not only as research for my writing but for myself, and we all had the same story, which was alarming and comforting all at once. Josh Connolly, who grew up with an alcoholic parent, is an ambassador for the National Association for Children of Alcoholics, a British charity dedicated to helping those affected by parents with addictions.
“My dad was an alcoholic,” he says. “I saw him take his own life while he was drunk when I was nine years old, and my mental wellbeing spiralled out of control. By age 12 I was ‘acting out’ and had turned to drink and drugs just for the escape it offered me. I spent most of my adolescence suppressing feelings that were too painful to feel. Even now, I have to work really hard to process my feelings. It doesn’t come naturally to me – my default setting is to just escape.”
Living with an alcoholic parent as a kid means that you learn to leave your own body in order to survive very early on – the problem is coming back to face reality. I was 14 years old when I took an entire packet of painkillers before telling my parents. Then they paid attention to me – but only for a few days. I tried again, but my ploy to get them to change their ways by risking my own life didn’t have the same shock factor for them the second time around, and I was greeted by tired grunts of frustration. So I gave up trying to get their attention, and started looking for love in boys who could never give me what I needed.
I made many mistakes in my pursuit of love and attention, and the reality is that to this day, I still make some of those mistakes. I can’t say it’s because my self-esteem never recovered, because I’m not sure it’s something I had in the first place.
Over in the United States, in Minnesota, I spoke to Shelbie, 23. Both of her parents are alcoholics, and she discussed the impact with me. “I have a hard time putting trust into people. I’m always second-guessing if they’re going to be there for me in the long run, even the closest friends and family members of mine.”
Even when children of alcoholics become adults they look for assurance everywhere they go, because they never had it. The desperation for approval, encouragement, affection and even discipline – particularly in my case, at least, since my father left when I needed structure the most – has to be overwhelming for those who I enter relationships with. I feel like I need so much. It’s also led me to go on to date dangerous men – controlling men – because I mistook a controlling nature for a caring nature.
“Even in the healthy relationship that I am in today, my traits are still there – the want to be loved and my fear of abandonment,” Josh told me.
I used to throw my mother’s alcohol down the sink, or switch her vodka with water, beg her to get help – I’d plead and cry and write her letters, all of which went unread, which made me angrier. At one point I thought we’d both just be better off dead. My mother would be shocked to know that’s how I felt because she blacks out when she drinks – but that just pisses me off more. She doesn’t have to live with the memories of the pain she has caused – only I do.
The older I get, I know that her issues aren’t my fault, and she’s just trying to muddle along like everybody else. She lost her brother before he turned 30, and her twin died in equally tragic circumstances years later. I do feel for my mother. But every time I told her to get some help, go for counselling, she’d sneer and say counselling was for the mentally weak. Ironically, she is one of the most mentally fragile people I have ever known. Eventually, attempting to help her felt like a lost cause.
When she’s sober, she’s beautiful and impressive, and I get along with her. In fact, I like her very much. But I can’t get attached to that version of her, because it is never around for long. I try to push my resentment to the side. Only I can’t. Because I inherited her demons – and the resentment I feel towards her for that is very hard to shake off.
I saw a quote recently, “You cannot heal in the environment that made you sick”, and it has stuck with me. Sometimes I feel it would be better to cut my family off for a while; they’re like the Addams Family – so eccentric, so depressing, so dark, so toxic – yet so inspiring and brilliant at times. Plus, they’re the only family I have.
My family gave me trust issues, and somehow they’re the only ones I trust enough to not want to lose. They don’t show it in a healthy way, but I do believe they love me. And because of that – despite the damage caused, and just like in my romantic relationships, I’d do anything for them, albeit with resentment that makes my bones ache. I’d sacrifice anything when it comes to love, because I want it so much.
Shelbie shares my feelings on the difficulty of letting go of a dysfunctional parent. “I’m in constant fear that something is going to happen to my parents, and I’ve become co-dependent on them. It’s a very unhealthy relationship, and I feel like I haven’t managed to forgive them yet – but it might happen someday.”
This is the problem children of alcoholics encounter: dysfunction becomes normality. You actually begin to thrive off it. And then before you know what is happening, you can’t live without it. When someone is kind to me it feels bizarre – like they’re going to pull the rug from under my feet at any moment. As an adult I felt like I should have been able to let go of my childhood trauma, and maybe that was the biggest mistake I made – not acknowledging my own pain and allowing myself to heal.
It’s something Josh also learned: “I would say things like ‘[My dad] did his best’ or ‘It is what is’… but that wasn’t the truth. I had to allow myself to feel the anger, the hurt and despair. I also had to look and address all the feelings I have towards my mother. I have an amazing relationship with my mother, so it was hard to feel and express the feelings of being let down by her.
“Forgiveness is a journey, and in some way it’s not the place I need to head. I understand what happened. I can be angry at my dad on any given day, and I am justified in that – it doesn’t mean I love him any less. Alcoholism is a family illness. It is not just the drinker who suffers, but the whole family. My dad’s drinking shaped the person that I am today.”
And that is where I am now – still trying to process how my childhood trauma shaped me into who I am today, still trying to accept it, and finally, learning how to heal. I hope that once I heal I’ll be strong enough to help my mother heal – because despite trying to stay logical, the child in me, her child, can’t let go of the hope that one day she’ll get better, and be able to stay better, for the rest of our days together.